Famines and Epidemics

Celtic Genealogy/Family History

How the Famines and Epidemics impact tracing your Celtic Ancestors

I was working on Tony's Irish family lines recently and found a very sad story with implications for a great many Celtic people because of the great loss of life. This story is particularly relevant to Irish family research, but also to Scottish families. I'll start with some basics.

Between about 1560 and 1655, there were deliberate policies and acts by the invading and occupying English under Elizabeth I, James I and Cromwell to limit the political and economic range of the native Catholic Irish to prevent any further alliances with Catholic Spain. They also wanted the Irish to convert to Protestantism. Since Ireland's economy was nearly entirely agrarian, they limited the land ownership of the Irish and the amount of land under control of the old Irish kingdoms and great families. They literally put as many of the Irish possible, on a reservation, not unlike the Native American reservations set up in the U.S.. In fact, the Native American reservations were literally based on what the English did with the Irish in Ireland.

The people of two of the older kingdoms in particular, Leinster and Munster, and the sometimes middle kingdom of Meath, including Meath and West Meath, and the southern part of Louth, mostly, were moved west or west and north to Connaught and the area of Munster north of the Shannon. In 1658-9, when the English parliament ordered a census to determine the extent of destruction and displacement since the 1640 rebellion and Cromwell's later invasion, it was found that 3/4 of the native Irish families, including a large percentage of Norman Irish who were also Catholic, had been killed or relegated to Connaught and County Clare, or in the case of the remaining half of the Scots-Irish, to Ulster. There were also 17,000 families that had been ordered into exile in France and Spain, under Cromwell, or be killed.

As a result, for those researching their roots, even if one has found enough records from family and government on this side of the Atlantic to learn where your Irish family was living at the time of emigration, and the port from which the family emigrated, these records may not indicate the original county in which your family lived longest. Family historians are likely to run into a dead end prior to 1707 or 1655 if the families were not from the counties in which they last lived before emigration.

Insights into the root causes

The same is true of Scottish families that emigrated after 1820. In a period known as the 'Highland Clearances', the Anglo-Scottish nobility and landed, non-noble gentry, cleared much of their own lands of traditional, poorer agrarian Scottish families for more profitable sheep and cattle. They sent these poorer families to Canada and the U.S. or to the coastal towns or limited land areas considered more suited for intensive small farm agriculture rather than sheep and cattle grazing. Again, after 1820, many Scottish families who emigrated did not emigrate from counties where their families originated and lived longest.

Additionally, the famine was not the only big killer in the middle of the last century. It and three epidemics afterward caused a lot of death and movement of families. A lot of migration to towns had occurred just before the famine and epidemics and most towns were prospering at that time, but there was no community sanitation in these towns. The famines in both Ireland and Scotland were immediately preceded by a period of prosperity and expanding families after some farm to town migration but filth increased and town water supplies were being stretched and polluted.

In Ireland, another English law forced upon the Irish also forbade the use of primogeniture for determining Irish land inheritance to deliberately break up economic and political power by making parcels of owned land smaller and smaller. This was seen as a way to encourage more Irish families to leave Ireland entirely. After a point, the sons had to find other occupations than farming. These were mostly occupations in towns.

After the Napoleonic wars, Ireland prospered in farming and nearby towns grew. There were direct relations between farm products and expanding retail and services in towns. As families expanded, they also needed homes and business buildings and the construction-related trades expanded also. So, just before the famine of 1847-49, parts of many agrarian families had moved to increasingly unsanitary towns after 1815, and the farms of the Catholic Irish were smaller and smaller. Being smaller and smaller, the farms had to concentrate on the highest yield crops with the most nutrition. Potatoes, cabbages, peas and oats ended up the main few crops, and often just potatoes, cabbages and peas on the poorest and smallest farms of less than half an acre, of which there were many at this time.

The potato grown in Ireland was almost all of one single species, a mono-culture. The Irish potato species was not robust and did not tolerate a warming, wetter era. Once a blight began, it took off rapidly. The Little Ice Age that began in the 1300's had just ended. The end of the colder era wasn't a slow and gradual process and climatology and effects of climate change were not yet recognized. There was also as yet, no understanding of how blights and diseases really spread. The crowding of people on small farms and in adjacent towns, and decrease in size of farms continued amid all of this. It combined to make the famine and the following epidemics especially deadly.

The English had no idea this was going to happen. They were no wiser about climate, the weaknesses of mono-culture crops, nor the causes and spread of epidemic diseases than the Irish. The same three epidemics also hit England and Scotland hard. Scottish farmers were, thanks to the Highland Clearances, also on smaller and smaller farms and reduced to fewer crops and used exactly the same potato species and by 1847 were in the SECOND potato blight related famine; the first having occurred 10 years earlier.

The English were just trying to make most of the Celtic peoples emigrate and take over their lands. By the 19th century, they were not trying to massacre them. After all, the English still wanted a certain amount of the Celtic peoples to stay to do the work the English didn't want to do, and comprise the most of the infantry in the wars they wanted to fight. The Irish had comprised large units in the Napoleon wars, as they had since Marlborough had the idea he could build large Irish military regiments for the English interests in the two continental wars of 'succession,' just about a century earlier.

Soldiers were paid and could acquire booty that they could later sell. A victorious soldier was allowed to strip enemy dead, and raid the homes and businesses of the enemy towns and farms, of anything portable and valuable. The combined pay and booty could provide enough to buy a small piece of land eventually, or start a small business.

While the English military discriminated to determine officers, it didn't discriminate on who could become soldiers. The English were successful in their continental participation in wars between 1702 and 1815; so were the Irish and Scottish soldiers under them. After 1815, land and business ownership of the Irish and Scots, in many areas, actually expanded and prospered for a generation. This was why the potato blight and related famine were such shocks and the Crown and parliaments were completely unprepared for them.

All these insights came while I was researching my husband's Irish family. The myth on this side of the Atlantic is that the Irish were all desperately poor and had been for centuries and most died in the famine, and without homes. While this might have happened in other counties, it did not happen in County Clare. It raises the suspicion that the realities of what did happen have been overly simplified and exaggerated.

How best to proceed with these insights

Recently, more record,s have been put on-line, but not in any unified manner. To find families before immigration, it is important to identify the counties in which they were living and find the county 'heritage centres' on-line. At that point, you find great disparity from county to county in resources made available to the heritage centres from the original records makers; town courthouses and Catholic churches.

Galway, just north of County Clare has almost nothing on-line, especially on-line and free; yet the same types of records were being made by exactly the same types of town and church officials. The bishopric of Tuam, headquartered in Galway and the parishes of Galway are more opaque and have not shared their records with heritage centres.

Some of the parishes have allowed their records registers to be microfilmed for the free Catholic NLI website; http://registers.nli.ie, and more allowed them to be microfilmed for the paid subscription website RootsIreland, www.rootsireland.ie. Both sites explain that some counties and parishes within bishoprics were much more cooperative than others.

There has been no effort to systematically microfilm the local town courthouse records. It seems to be strictly whatever agreements and joint efforts can be made between volunteers and officials at the heritage centres and the towns with courthouses and other records, county by county, and sometimes civil parish union district by civil parish union district.

Bear in mind that the counties are organized with several governmental subdivisions: counties, then several baronies, then parish union civil districts which comprise several church parishes, townships and towns. A township can have two or three small definable villages within it, if not a town. In addition to property taxes, there were also church tithes and lists of families who had enough personal property or land or both to pay tithes made annually. Within the counties were also lists of evictions and the names of the poor who ended up in the poor houses and town or parish union civil district hospitals in the mid-19th century.

These eviction records were not ordered sent to the Public Records Office in Dublin, Ireland, and so were not destroyed in the 1922 Four Courts disaster. Also the Catholic church records were not ordered sent to the PRO. The Catholics also had their own subdivisions of bishopric, and parishes; some of latter of which were also organized into unions of parishes which shared some clergy and records keeping. If the parish was one of several adjacent very small ones, they were often in a parish union and any local services, such as a hospital or school, were under the union administration.

County Clare was an eye-opener about the numbers of registers that were being made for so many purposes, and the potential that exists in every Irish county, were they all as cooperative with their heritage centres for getting records on-line. Two big eye-openers in the famine and epidemic period is that there were a considerable number of hospitals, both civil and Catholic, that were operating and many were residential for the very poor who could not care for themselves.

After 1837, the recently enacted Crown 'poor laws' had taken effect requiring counties, towns and parish unions to set up poor houses for those who lost their homes and farms through eviction. Eviction was not just occurrng for non-payment of rent, but because some greedy owners wanted to charge more rent and could only do so by ending the existing leases and getting rid of the tenants named in those specific leases.

Irish and Scottish learned to fight in the courts against eviction that was occurring while those intended to be evicted were still paying rent. As a result, by 1848, courts were denying illegal evictions where rent was still being paid in money, and also for the famine afflicted poor were urging work-rent agreements for those who were still able bodied to use work for the land-owners to continue to have a cabin and a little land of their own in tenancy.

We knew my husband's McInerneys/McNerneys had come from County Clare. Based on the family given names, we further narrowed this family down to one of two places in that county, either Ennis parish union or Kilrush parish union. The two lines are related, anyway, and it appears started out closer to Ennis in the 1600's. Kilrush expanded in the 1700's and 1800's, greatly prospered between 1815 and 1847, survived the famine quite well, and then was nearly wiped out. Although there were records of many filed eviction papers, the records showed very few were actually carried out; none for any members of my husband's family.

So what happened? Why did this family say later that many died in Ireland, and why did Kilrush then suffer and become a place from which to flee?

Although it turned out there were indeed mass deaths, interestingly, the records showed that they were not from the national famine of 1847-8--very few, but what came after. There was some malnutrition all over the country, and this weakened the family and many others. Most of those people who had something were sharing with others who had less, not realizing that they might be weakening their immunity to disease. Immunology as a field of medical study or science didn't exist then, either. Then came three, not one or two, but THREE EPIDEMICS in 1850 and into the first half of 1851. The worst was cholera, but in 1850 was also smallpox and in 1850 and 1851 were also measles outbreaks.

Hint: if you haven't gotten your children measles vaccinations and are of partly Irish descent, I can't urge you enough to get them, especially for your children under the age of 10--MEASLES were very deadly for young Irish children!

In 1846, the family was prosperous and even up to the end of 1849 not one single McNerney family had been evicted for non-payment of rent in all the eviction rolls. One young man John McInerney, and his wife, were nearly evicted but worked out a deal for work-rent. Several were prosperous tradesmen in the town of Kilrush, population about 5,000 at that time; others were farmers in various townlands in the parish union. Then came the epidemics.

Suddenly, between March, 1850 and about March 1851, 38 members of the McInerney family died in the several hospitals for the townsfolk and poor in Kilrush. Almost three quarters of those were children under 11 years of age. The oldest were Michael aged 71 died of 'dysentery' (cholera) and John aged 80 'general debility.' These were probably two of the only four or five patriarchs of the family of the entire civil parish union district and which had been varied in occupation and prosperous enough to have appeared in the directories of 1824 and 1846.

Noting that the Kilrush town population was about 5,000; the town and the rest of its parish union comprised about 11,000 and that over a quarter of the 11,000 died in 1850-1, it's safe to guess the total number of McInerneys/McNerneys prior to 1850 in the Kilrush parish union was about 120 persons. Losing such a large percentage was a shock to town and union. Survivors literally fled the area, afterward, not trusting that the epidemics were truly ended.

I deduced that Tony's great-great grandfather, Michael McNerney, probably did as others. He first traveled to a much larger port town, such as Limerick or Galway, and then, having married a Mary Coyne, he decided to emigrate and went to Liverpool where he could earn a better income to pay for passage for himself and a family.

Getting to Liverpool from Kilrush or Ennis was not done directly. One either had to travel overland eastward to Dublin and then take a small ship across the English channel, which meant two expenses, one for overland travel, and then a second for ship travel or one could cut the expenses by first going to the nearest port which had some sort of shipping to Liverpool. That nearest port was also likely to have a few cousins to help with temporary lodging and work to get to the next destination. However, we know ultimately, Michael McNerney came from County Clare itself.

So, when traveled to Ireland, one of the places in County Clare we visited was the graveyards attached to the hospitals of 1850-51 to pay our respects to forgotten family who died so suddenly and tragically. Michael McNerney was lucky, despite his death in the coal mining town of Locust Gap, Northumberland Co., PA of 'black lung disease'. He survived famine and epidemics, had almost 25 years of marriage, had a son who survived and half his daughters survived. His 38+ cousins were not as lucky.